By Elizabeth Ahlfors
Traveling with your aunt may not be your idea of wild and crazy fun, unless your auntie is Mame. Henry Pulling, a mild-mannered retired bank manager, was lucky enough to meet his own peripatetic Aunt Augusta, who turned his life around when they met. The comedy unravels in Graham Greene’s 1970 novel, Travels With My Aunt, which Greene described as “the only book I have written just for the fun of it.”
Adapted by Giles Havergal in a Keen Company production at The Clurman Theater, Travels With My Aunt became a film starring Maggie Smith as the eccentric septuagenarian, who lures Henry out of his drowsy village in England into a globe-trotting adventure. Always unpredictable, Aunt Augusta introduced herself at Henry’s mother’s funeral in 1969, claiming she was his father’s sister. She added that his late sainted mother was really his stepmother and the father Henry admired for his morality, had actually been quite a philanderer before his death. When she persuades Henry to visit with her for something stronger than tea, Henry begins to draw away from his quiet life of tending dahlias and the adventures began.
Suspend reality and rely on your imagination to travel along. There is no Maggie Smith here, nor any persnickety British dames in the role of Aunt Augusta. Four actors portray the 25 characters, including Thomas Jay Ryan as both Henry and Aunt Augusta. Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins and Rory Kulz also play Henry as well as characters like a CIA spy, taxi driver, a Spanish gentleman, Italian girl and former WW11 criminals. At one point, Kulz appears an imaginative panting wolfhound.
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein, the story moves with surprising fluidity on Steven C. Kemp’s minimalistic stage with a few imaginative props. The characters interrupt each other, change topics. switch or chop sentences and Silverstein encourages as much humor as the play allows. Certainly it is a dated picaresque adventure, not digging deeply into anything but telling a nutty flamboyant story.
Unconventional Aunt Augusta disrespects social mores and is sexually energetic. At one point, she admits to Henry that she will miss Wordsworth her young companion/paramour from Sierra Leone. (“His balls were superb.”) Wordsworth reappears frequently throughout the show as Henry and Aunt Augusta takes Henry on jaunts to Brighton, to Istanbul on the Orient Express, Paris having suspicious dealings in gold exchanges and drug smugglings, which Aunt Augusta ignored. ” I have never planned anything illegal in my life. How could I when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?
They are jailed and released, winding up in Argentina and Paraguay. As the play continues, repressed Henry slowly gets into the swing of it all even as the play struggles in the second act.
Costume designer, Jennifer Paar, dressed everyone in black with derby hats. Sometimes a character would pull down the brim for a feminine look, as with Miss Patterson, his elderly neighbor moving to South Africa unless, she broadly hints, Henry can convince her to stay in their sleepy little town. He ignores her hint although he ends up back at home, but changed. “I felt oddly elated to be alive, and I knew in a moment of decision that I would never see the dahlias again,”
Travels With My Aunt opens on October 15, 2015 and closes November 14, 2015. Creative prop supervisor was Samantha Shoffner, sound design was by Bart Fasbender and lighting by Josh Bradford. The play runs for two hours with intermission and a warning that the show may be inappropriate for children aged 10 and under.
www.keencompany.org The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, NYC) www.telecharge.com